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Emotional Responsibility

One of the most common and important concepts I address with clients in private practice is the concept of emotional responsibility. For those who grew up in homes where family roles were clearly defined and expectations were explicit, the process of becoming a self-reliant and secure adult was probably much more fluid than for those whose homes were fraught with chaos and inconsistency. When developing people are not taught how or are unable to attend to their own emotional needs because they are consumed by the unpredictable fluctuation of emotions surrounding them in their primary environment, the ability to manage one’s own emotions becomes a difficult task.

I so often hear adult client’s make statements such as, “I didn’t have a choice.” “She didn’t mean to do it.” “It’s all his fault.” These examples are forms of a disparity in the healthy development of emotional responsibility. Without an appropriate sense of emotional responsibility for oneself, one may swing to either side of a pendulum. When a child (who will someday become an adult) is not shown by example how to be responsible for his own emotions he might respond by taking on responsibility for the feelings of those around him, that is, taking others actions to mean something about himself (“Dad seems angry, so I must have done something wrong.”). This is being overly responsible for others’ emotions. Conversely, rather than over-developing a sense of responsibility, one might lack the experience of knowing one’s own emotions so that owning responsibility for one’s feelings or actions takes a back seat to the other feelings driving behavior. This person can seem selfish to others because there is little responsibility taken for choices and behavior, and the reality is that little attention is likely given as to what thoughts or feelings drive behavior. We might say that this person is lacking emotional responsibility for their own conduct.

A person with a healthy sense of emotional responsibility for one’s self is not only able to accept the choices one has made, but also gains the privilege of new responsibility in the form of trust and balance in relationships. As an added bonus, the more one learns the value of taking true responsibility for her own actions, the less responsibility she feels compelled to take on for others. This makes phrases like “speaking your truth” much more impactful if one grasps the concept that each individual’s experience is separate and unique to who she or he is. When a person no longer feels the burden of emotional responsibility for others, she is free to express her feelings and thoughts in a security that these belong to her and are hers to express. A lot of communication issues between couples often boils down to how each expresses what they are feeling. If a husband were to tell his wife he made plans to see friends for the evening a maladaptive response might sound like, “I guess you don’t like spending time with me.” This response misses the point of owning one’s own feelings. It is characterized by the wife telling the husband what he thinks or feels. An adaptive response might go like this: “It seems like you have been spending a lot of time away from me. I have felt very lonely lately and I’m hurt that you are spending time with others when you could be spending time with me.” This response reflects the wife’s own thoughts and feelings and opens up a conversation.

The question of appropriateness to disclose information is then easily solved by this concept. If I take full responsibility for myself and myself alone, the consequences of others actions are for the other to bear. It is not my job to protect other people’s feelings, especially because I am not in control of other people’s feelings, nor do I want to be. The healthy adult can express him- or herself freely (so long as the intent is not actually malicious) and the healthy adult can hear another person’s thoughts or feelings and remain separate with her own thoughts and feelings intact. My own thoughts and feelings say much more about me than they do about you. When people really care about each other, the freedom of expression need not be conveyed with trepidation about how someone may respond. If trust is a cornerstone of relationships, we must be able to first trust ourselves to be introspective and then we can give others our trust knowing we have a much better chance at receiving that which we are willing to give.

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